Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Running a D&D Campaign in 1974

This is the second in a much-delayed series of short articles [the 1st was published in OD&Dities fanzine] examining the history of D&D by constructing a fictional campaign setting that (hypothetically) started in 1974, and tracing its progress through the years. The simulation of such a campaign will, hopefully, illuminate the development of D&D, as well as introduce a new campaign setting developed “from the ground up.”

The year 1974 is most significant to gaming for the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons game, sold in the form of 1,000 cardboard boxes holding three small booklets in each. The fact that this first print run sold out within the year means that the number of people exposed to D&D went up from perhaps dozens to well over a thousand within the span of 1974. (1) Until this point, D&D was available to select groups of wargamers and their friends and families (Blackmoor apparently had six wargamers at its first roleplaying session, (2) while Greyhawk started more slowly with Gary Gygax DMing for his two children(3)) and even for years afterwards, D&D would draw a substantial amount of its players from the hobby of wargaming. From now on, D&D would begin to attract players from outside wargaming until it became a hobby of its own.

Almost as significant as the publication of D&D would be the availability of polyhedral dice. Until D&D, dice in shapes other than cubes were rare – indeed, TSR had to order their sets from a school supply company in California, and went straight to that company’s supplier in Asia when the middleman could not provide enough. (4) Under Chainmail rules, one only needed six-sided dice to play. Even the D&D rules of 1974 did not have uses for every die in the set – the d4, d8, d10, and d12 were aids for the DM, but virtually useless for the players until variable weapon damage was introduced the following year. Still, the presence of polyhedral dice on the gaming table went along way towards establishing the decorum of the standard D&D campaign – and sure beat playing with chits.

The original D&D rulebooks were crude and sparse. (5) There were references to castle dungeons, but no details other than what monsters, traps, and treasure one was likely to find there. There were suggestions for what monsters to encounter in the wilderness depending on the climate or terrain. More importantly, there were no published modules in 1974. The prototype of this concept wouldn’t see print until the following year (“Temple of the Frog” in the Blackmoor supplement) and the “ready to play” concept of modules would not appear until 1978. So what would those early campaign scenarios be like?

The major campaigns being played in 1974 – Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk, and Rob Kuntz’s Kalibruhn – all revolved around dungeon crawls, lengthy subterranean expeditions into impossibly deep dungeons beneath castles (though there were clearly scenarios that deviated from this pattern as well). Details about these campaigns could have been learned by word of mouth at GenCon XII, Lake Geneva’s 1974 wargaming convention, which most if not all of the major figures in the development of early D&D attended. (6) If this was the case, our hypothetical campaign could have been greatly influenced by the standard bearers for all early D&D campaigns.

With this benefit, our 1974 gamers would no doubt look to fantasy fiction literature for inspiration. The previous article supposed that the “Shadoworld” campaign invented by these hypothetical 1973 gamers would use Roger Zelazney’s then-recent Jack of Shadows novel as their main inspiration. This year saw the publication of several collections by classic fantasy authors, including early masters of the weird Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. These authors could have influenced Shadoworld to have strange, alien gods instead of the human-like deities of most Earth pantheons. Magic might itself be alien in origin, such as it appears to be in Lieber’s Lankhmar novels. They can borrow cosmologically from Zelazney again, from the Amber novels, the notions of tiered planes of reality and some being more real than others. From Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories could come the notion of civilized and primitive cultures living side-by-side, and from Jack Vance’s Dying World could come the notion that the more civilized cultures consist mainly of powerful, decadent, and bored wizards. Maybe there would even be some of the wicked excesses of John Norman’s Gor novels — which would no doubt be more forgivable in a game then-marketed exclusively to a male audience.(7)

There were some literary inspiration already shoehorned into the original D&D rules. Most notably, all the major races from Tolkein’s Middle Earth novels were present in D&D, but the wandering encounter tables for deserts also made specific reference to Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series. Any D&D group in any year has to make the decision of either accepting all material presented officially in the rules or picking and choosing which elements they desire to use. Here, our hypothetical group might decide that elf and dwarf PCs would be okay, but discard hobbits (specifically referred to as hobbits in 1974 and not changed to halflings until later). They could also decide that a Barsoom-like environment does exist in their world’s deserts, but that it is not anywhere near the locale of the campaign setting so far.

Into only the second year of the campaign, it is unlikely that much of the campaign setting would have been fleshed out beyond the area explored by the PCs. With an emphasis on dungeon delving, the campaign might have never left the county (or similar geopolitical boundaries) of its origin. The PCs would be local heroes, so politics outside the local arena would be of little relevance yet. Many clues have already been given as to what sources of inspiration the DM could have used for scenarios. It is also possible to estimate the levels of the campaigns PCs after their first year. Gygax wrote that “it is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games … he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level.”( A little math reveals that reaching the median xp requirement for 9th level — 180,000 – in 50 games would come to an average of 3,600 xp per game. Assuming weekly sessions, the PCs would earn enough to be well into 4th level (if a magic-user) or even 5th level (if a cleric or fighter) after a year’s time.

So, by the end of 1974, our players had just a taste of what the Shadoworld campaign, and D&D itself, had to offer. Those early game sessions of helping the local count pursue the King of Elfland’s Daughter (one of the aforementioned tiers of reality) and helping the House of Usher deal with its undead relations soon led to the more formulaic and “expected” scenarios of sacking a rogue knight’s castle and looting the dungeon of a lost, crazed wizard. After each successful adventure, they would head to the nearest town and learn more about how the sorcerors in power there used political power and hired muscle to keep themselves safe during the day when their spells did not work, or of the alien beings that visited the heads of the local church, or hear tales from fighters of distant lands who had fought far larger and more powerful monsters than any they had seen so far. And all this would keep them intrigued and excited enough to keep playing …in 1975.

3 Confirmed via email with Gary Gygax in 2001.
5 For a better overview, see and
6 See the chronology of tournaments at
7 To see what other fantasy fiction was published circa 1974, search by year.
8 Gygax, Gary. The Strategic Review. Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 1976), p. 23.

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